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Bhutan: A chillip’s journey

By Scott Dunn 22 October 2020

Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan country, is overjoyed. The Bhutanese government prioritizes GNH, the Gross National Happiness of its people, over GDP as a measure of the country’s prosperity. It was an isolated country until it opened its doors for tourists in the 1970s, so it only started letting people in to share its happiness. Policies and life revolve around strong Buddhist beliefs, and it is home to spectacular landscapes, ancient monasteries, and dzongs (རྫོང).

With the Bhutanese government’s upkeep of the conservation of the forests, and the law stipulating that it should never drop below 60 percent, Bhutan's forests span over 70 percent of the country. The government’s stringent conservation efforts make Bhutan one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, sheltering a vast array of birds and exotic animals, like snow leopards and Himalayan sheep. 

Extensive research shows a positive correlation between exposure to nature and self-esteem and mood, reduced stress levels, and blood pressure. Heritage conservation policies are also put in place to preserve heritage buildings like monasteries throughout the country. All these conspire to forge happiness in the people of Bhutan and to maintain prosperity. Travel specialist Jess recounts her journey through the nation, as a chillip, or foreigner.

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I particularly enjoyed trekking the high mountains that towers 1,400 to 3,400 metres above sea level in my trip. We even made it to 4,000 metres by trekking just one day and night to reach the summit. We were among the clouds, free as a bird.

Aside from the stunning landscapes we traversed, the Bhutanese language is just as beautiful. Its national language is called Dzongkha (རྫོང་ཁ་), which means the language spoken in Dzongs, and the fortresses that combine religious and civil jurisdiction in each district. The language is used to express beautiful sentiments. They do not have a word for goodbye—instead, they say “when we meet again”. They also have a special name to address foreigners, known as Chilips, or The Grey Hairs. Holding knowledge of these phrases will open doors for you when communicating with the local people and trekking in remote parts of Bhutan.

As a chilip, I was greeted with meticulous hospitality and friendly welcomes. I learned that Bhutan is home to one of the last monarchies in the world, and the royal family have ruled over their country for years. Modernity was only recently introduced, the first television in 1999, wifi in 2001, and the establishment of democracy in 2008.

Western influence also spread to Bhutan when seeds were transported to Phobkijha valley by the first British government—potatoes grew in abundance as a result. In the 1960s, Canadian teachers were sent to more remote areas to teach English. In the eastern valley of Bhumtang, Swiss cheese and beer are manufactured, so you may enjoy a slice and a pint if you so wish.

What I found enticing about Bhutan is that it retains a sense of authentic life under Western influence. The monarchy and its people take great lengths to preserve their culture. As you travel eastward into the country, you’ll find yourself in rural settings where the elderly wear their traditional dress, men in a kimono-like gho ( བགོ), and kira (དཀྱི་ར་) for women, as required upon visiting temples, monasteries, and palaces in the area. You will find classic Bhutanese architecture everywhere, with bay windows and elevated, pitched roofs. In restaurants, daily meals feature rice.

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We were lucky that our visit coincided with Bhutan’s 108th National Day. Paro, where we were staying at the time, was to host the King and his father, known to the local people as the 4th and 5th King. We were barred from entering the stadium where the King addressed the people, as the sacred event was only privy to locals. Our guide resolved this by depositing us near the gate with the other chilips that have been turned away and went off to find what could be done. Our luck took a turn when we were finally allowed in to witness the event, only after the guards checked to make sure we had no technological equipment and there was enough space left after the locals had all gone in.

As it opened its doors to foreigners in 1974, the first highway was built in 1960, roads were paved, and English was established as a mandatory subject in schools. With the implementation of television and internet services, tourism has been growing slowly and surely, but the country still remains unique. The happiest country in the world is a place that strives to be itself unceasingly, remaining unapologetically and beautifully itself.

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Scott Dunn

Travel partner

Scott Dunn is a luxury tour operator specialising in tailor-made holidays. We build your holiday around what you want, not our preferences, and we take the time to understand what you enjoy so we can create the perfect holiday for you.